Monday, December 11, 2017

LOOKING BEYOND A SHAM ELECTION


No harm would have come to the Congress Party if Rahul Gandhi was named President one fine morning. Much harm was done to its image by staging a charade of an election. As many as 89 sets of nomination papers filed for Shri Gandhi. Not even one nam-ke-wastay opponent. (Dissidents? What dissidents?) The party's dutiful “Central Election Committee” wanted a day to scrutinise the papers. A deadline was fixed for withdrawal of nominations. Then voting. Who were they trying to fool? Why?

Among the first to react was Mani Shankar Aiyar, the Congressman who has just lost his Congressmanship. Off-centre as ever, he underlined the meaninglessness of the election by proclaiming that Rahul's elevation was as natural as Mughal succession. “After Jehangir, Shah Jehan came. Was an election held? After Shah Jehan it was understood that Aurangazeb would be the leader”.

Understood by whom? There was a bit of humbug there introduced by Mani. The Mughals had no tradition of passing power from father to son. Shah Jehan did want to crown his eldest son Dara Shikoh, a thinker and religious liberal though poor in military matters. The ambitious Aurangazeb defeated various opponents, then turned on Dara accusing him of being no longer a Muslim. Dara was betrayed by a general and was eventually executed. Aurangazeb cut his brother's head and sent it to his father detained in Agra Fort.

So why did Mani compare Rahul Gandhi's succession to that of Aurangazeb? Nothing disloyal, to be sure; he is known as one of the few civilised men in politics. But he loves intellectual mischief, as most intellectuals do. He probably wanted to give another handle to his nemesis, Narendra Modi, and watch the fun. He did that once by revealing something nobody had noticed till then – that Narendra Modi began as a chaiwalla. The Modi juggernaut used that bit with great success. Naturally Modi seized the Aurangazeb bit as well. He has been having a ball comparing the Congress with the Mughals.

Of course the BJP has no moral right to criticise the Aurangazeb in the Congress when its own leaders are saffron-clad Aurangazebs. Were L.K.Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi sent to pasture through an election? How many BJP chief ministers became chief ministers through inner-party elections? The Indian voter is not dumb. He and she can see the hypocrisy of one party accusing another of wrongdoings when all of them wallow in wrongdoings. Dynastic autocracy is no different from personality-based autocracy.

Fortunately for the Congress, its tactical mistakes have not so far dented the image-boost that Rahul Gandhi acquired in recent months. The rise of Patel politics in Gujarat and the remarkable electoral setbacks the ABVP, the student wing of the BJP, has suffered in Delhi, Hyderabad, Varanasi, Rajasthan, Guwahati and even the Central University of Gujarat point to a trend. Modi will remain unbeatable in oratory. But recent events show that, without oratory, his opponents can attract some attention.

Image matters in public life: Richard Nixon's camera-unfriendly “7 o'clock shadow” undid him before the fresh and friendly face of John Kennedy. Modi's dreamlike idealism will remain unrivalled, but it can no longer be separated from the image of Amit Shah who has become his alter ego. Nor can he escape from the negative vibes produced by his Finance Minister who goes on introducing half-baked reforms, then keeps correcting them in bits and pieces, all the time claiming superior wisdom incomprehensible to ordinary mortals. Image matters – and the image of the Government today is not what it was yesterday.

Opposition forces have gained ground support in Gujarat, but Gujarat is one state the BJP simply cannot afford to lose. If they lose Gujarat, they lose India. So they will use every trick in the book and then some to win. They have already got help from squirrel parties like NCP and AAP who will field their own squirrels and thus split anti-BJP votes. BJP strategists must now protect EVMs to prevent Hardik Patel from tampering with them, and protect the Election Commission also to prevent Alpesh and Jignesh from misusing it. Got it?

For Rahul Gandhi a setback in Gujarat will not be the end of the road. It will be the beginning of a new journey. Everyone is looking for a New India. The BJP spoiled its chances by equating New India with patriotic lynchings. A new Congress can seize the opportunity.

A new Congress? Ay, there's the rub.





Monday, December 4, 2017

JUDGES MUST CROSS LAKSHMAN REKHA


Jawaharlal Nehru showed the judiciary its place when he said in the Constituent Assembly in 1949: "No Supreme Court can make itself a third chamber. No Supreme Court and no judiciary can stand in judgment over the sovereign will of Parliament. If we go wrong here and there, it can point it out, but in the ultimate analysis, where the future of the [country] is concerned, no judiciary can come in the way. And if it comes in the way, ultimately, the whole constitution is a creature of Parliament".

Ravi Shankar Prasad is no Jawaharlal Nehru. Indeed, his party has deleted Nehru from its memory pad. But the Law Minister was on Nehru's page when he, too, showed the judiciary its place. His phraseology was different because it was meant primarily to please his chief, but the spirit was the same when he told judges at a Law Day meeting: The people of India trust the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister possesses the nuclear button, that's how much the people trust him. Yet the Prime Minister through the Law Minister cannot be trusted to have a fair judge appointed. Why don't you trust the Prime Minister?

That is a self-serving approach to electoral democracy. A declamatory answer to the Law Minister's declamatory question would be: The Supreme Court does not trust the Government for the same reasons that the Government does not trust the Supreme Court. Such mutual mistrust suits the citizen because it will ensure a fair measure of checks and balances.

Justice J.S.Khehar gave a pointed answer to the Law Minister when he said "the judiciary is mandated to shield all citizens against discrimination and abuse of state power". The curse of party politics as played in India is that power is abused by all parties. This is evident in the appointment of governors, in giving undue favours to relatives, in promoting the interests of crony capitalists.

A Government favourite, Pahlaj Nichalani, was made film certification board chief; he proved such a liability that he had to be removed. The Pune film institute was reduced to a laughing stock by another BJP favourite, Gajendra Chauhan. His replacement, Anupam Kher, has more filmic credentials but his principal credential is that he is a BJP bhakt. Come to think of it, what about Raghuram Rajan's exit from the Reserve Bank?

All governments want pliable people in key positions, from the Reserve Bank to the CBI. All governments want a pliable judiciary. Indira Gandhi used crude authoritarianism to achieve her purpose. The present government passed a law that gave the Law Ministry a say in the appointment and transfer of judges. But Justice Khehar's 5-judge bench struck it down on the ground that the judiciary must remain insulated and independent from organs of governance -- a position India's citizenry will wholeheartedly support.

This does not mean that a Supreme Court collegium is a perfect arrangement. With embarrassing frequency, collegium-backed appointments have favoured sons and uncles and promoted private interests. Judges have faced impeachment and one is currently in jail. But the solution to a flawed system is not the installation of another flawed system.

We had a taste of what would happen if this Government were to have its way in appointing judges. The eminent jurist Gopal Subramanian's name was put up by the collegium for appointment to the Supreme Court. When resistance came, he withdrew his name with dignity. It transpired that he was once the amicus curiae on behalf of the Supreme Court in the Shorabuddin Sheikh encounter killing case, which the BJP has turned into the most politically sensitive case in modern India. The Government's resistance to collegium recommendations led, as CJI T.S.Thakur said last year, to 478 High Court positions being vacant and "people languishing in jails for 13 years without a hearing".

The idealism that propelled Nehru lost its meaning even when his party was in power. The "sovereign will of Parliament" became a farce when gangsters and money-bags entered the House as "elected representatives of the people". The first two chambers Nehru had in mind lost credibility while the third, the judiciary, despite black sheep, remained a saving grace. That's why Subramanyam Swamy was unconvincing when he argued, in the 2G spectrum corruption case, that the courts should remain within the Lakshman Rekha of executive wisdom. Justice Ganguly intervened: "It was only when Seeta crossed the Lakshman Rekha that Ravana was killed". May the judiciary continue to cross executive rekhas and help kill the Ravanas roaming around.

Monday, November 27, 2017

RAHUL HAS AN OPPORTUNITY, BUT...


Circumstances have brought about a change in Rahul Gandhi. More complex circumstances are forcing the Congress Party to change. Gujarat elections are the first of a three-stage test that will decide whether the Congress lives or dies (the others being Karnataka elections a year from now and then the general election). The party is fighting bravely in Gujarat, and shrewedly, too, if the alliances with Patidars and Dalits are any indication. But is that enough to get the better of the richest party in the country? (Reports mention, not hundreds, but thousands of crores of rupees being brandished about. So much for the victory over black money).

The Congress needs an internal revolution to survive. This is history's revenge. As a national movement for independence, it had earned the emotional backing of people en masse. Independence won, it should have wound up, as Gandhi advised, so that political organisations would have a level playing field in the new game of democracy. It chose instead to take unfair advantage of the afterglow of the freedom struggle, thereby becoming more equal than others. That advantage lasted only a few years. Then rot set in.

The undemocratic nature of dynastic rule made the rot spread fast. Rahul Gandhi's ascent to yuvaraj status brought the Congress to its lowest ebb thanks to his absences and arrogance in the early stages. Recall his barging into a press conference and publicly downgrading his own party's prime minister by tearing up an ordinance issued by the Government. It came as a surprise that the same man impressed audiences with his mature ways during his US visit in September. At 47, it was about time.

The flowering of Rahul Gandhi gives hope that his appointment as Congress President (expected in December) may bring about the reforms the party badly needs. The first priority is to give the party a new energy with a set of young faces. This won't be easy because every Congress leader above 60 is convinced that he deserves to be the Prime Minister of India. Note how P. Chidambaram objected when A.K.Antony's name came up as a possibility for the vice-presidentship of the party. That Antony cannot unite even warring Congressmen in Kerala is as evident as the fact that Chidambaram does not have a single constituency in this vast and fertile country that he can consider safe. But nothing stops Congressmen from pulling down one another.

India is the only democracy in the world where the Indian principle of vanaprastha is unacceptable to politicians. Rahul Gandhi's task is to bring in a New Guard without driving the Old Guard into belligerence. Some may resort to demonstrative vengeance by walking over to the BJP, but the Congress President will do well to hold fast knowing that there is a mood change in the country.

BJP has been in power long enough for people to see the gap between word and deed at the government level. The Prime Minister holds forth on grand dreams, great principles and wonderful ideals. On the ground, the jobless turn desperate, farmers abandon all hopes, the middleclass go crazy over GST-Aadhar idiocyncracies and, worst of all, a new criminality called lynching becomes part of a new patriotism. These sham patriots publicly call for the beheading of people they don't like. The Government encourages them by not taking any meaningful action to put them down.

That all this is done in the name of Hinduism must be abhorrent to a great many Hindus, hence the change in the public mood. In all religions the fanatics compromise the faithful. Atrocities like the Spanish Inquisition made a mockery of Christianity in Europe. The murderous advances of fundamentalism violate Islam across the world. Sanatana Dharma had sustained its greatness until narrow political ends turned it into an electioneering tool. India deserves to get back to a state of equilibrium where the faiths that sustain people are not misused for petty political purposes.

The BJP will continue to use religion as a polarising force because obviously it is unable to do the right thing: Winning popular support through policies that make life easier for the people. That the public has recognised this reality is Rahul Gandhi's opportunity. Across the country there is a growing realisation that something somehow must put an end to a culture that enables self-styled nationalists to offer rewards for cutting off an actress's nose. It is a shame that we have a system that does not put such anti-nationals in jail.

Monday, November 20, 2017

India has broken its own traditions by joining US-led strategic group. This will restrict Delhi's options


Did India gain from last week's Southeast Asia summit? The big takeaway, as admitted by our External Affairs spokesmen, was a "deepening of engagement" with the US. This is useful upto a point. America is the only power with the capacity to checkmate an increasingly assertive China. But America's interest in using this power for the common good is open to doubt. President Trump is basically an "America First" bargainer and he was quite happy bargaining his way into $235 billion business deals with China on his way to the ASEAN summit. This narrow vision of the US President makes our big takeaway from the summit look not all that big.

In a broader strategic sense also, the wisdom of India joining a quadrilateral alliance against China is questionable. The 'quad' as it is now called was originally a pentagon, but Singapore, recognising the elephant in the room, withdrew. Australia is an existential ally of America. Japan, worried about China's growing might, clutches every available straw but also tries to mend its ties with Beijing. India has the biggest stakes in the game with border disputes on the one hand and Pakistan's scheming on the other. The traditional posture of non-alignment would have given India more space for bilateral diplomacy.

The External Affairs Ministry claims that Southeast Asia sees India as a "dependable partner" and wants it to be "more assertive" with Beijing. This is self-deception. The fact is that, barring Vietnam, all countries in the region have reconciled to China's dominance. Singapore's is the most calculated switch for it plans to be a hub of Xi Jinping's dream project, the Belt-and-Road network. The Philippines faced the ground reality in a different way. In August it had tried to put up a makeshift structure on a sandbank within its territorial waters.China despatched a naval force whereupon Manila stopped work and pulled out its troops. China isn't open to any compromise.

Vietnam is different because of history. Although China was on its side during the Vietnam wars, the two countries have been in conflict from the third century BCE. Modern guerrilla warfare was said to have been invented by the Trung sisters who led the rebellion against China in 43 CE. After Vietnam defeated America, Chinese troops invaded its northern region leading to tens of thousands of deaths on both sides. China withdrew without victory. The ugly episode was the result of Vietnam destroying the tyrannical Pol Pot regime in Cambodia; China saw Pol Pot as an ally.

More consequential was a Chinese naval attack on Vietnamese boats in 1988. Tiny Vietnamese islands in the nearby waters were taken over by China. That was early warning about what has become China's mainstream policy today: Militarising all islands in the region under the Chinese flag.

Vietnam is not big enough to engage China militarily. But then, it was not big enough to take on the US either. Yet its barefoot army defeated the world's most powerful war machine. The Vietnamese people's spirit of independence combined with their genius for innovation will pose a challenge China may not face elsewhere. The Vietnamese will fight for more centuries if necessary.

From 1988 India has been involved in oil exploration off the Vietnamese coast, ignoring Chinese protests. This India-Vietnam collaboration has political advantages. But India's best strategic option is to be in active negotiations with China. Relations with other countries, prudently managed, can strengthen India's position in such negotiations -- relations with US, Russia, Europe and even Vietnam and major stand-alone powers like Iran.

This is where identification with just one power group led by the US becomes a liability. The US has a record of refusing to pass on technology of any kind to India whereas Russia has given high-end military ware along with technology transfer. Ironically, India's deepening of engagement with the US seems to have coincided with a worsening of engagement with Russia.

Russian news portals have reported that India allowed an American technical team to inspect INS Chakra, the top-secret Russian nuclear submarine on lease to India from 2012. India has denied the report, but will Russian media play up such a story without political clearance from above? This happens when India wants another nuclear submarine from Russia.

The "Indo-US global strategic partnership" is good for the US, but India ought to develop ideas that are good for India. Being a junior member in a US-led quad is playing the US game. Smartness lies in getting others play the Indian game.


Monday, November 13, 2017

DeMo, GST, etc: How to create a mess, then make it messier. Now, link your Aadhar number to your sambar-vada


It is difficult to imagine that a full year has passed since 1000-rupee notes disappeared from our world. Champions and critics marked the occasion by bitterly attacking one another. The champions were highpitched as they celebrated the anniversary and boasted about three lakh fake companies that were closed down and the detection of fraud involving Rs 4000 crore. Quoting their rhyme-loving leader, they said hard work had beaten Harvard.

In a country so cleansed, the critics were handicapped. But their numbers were large. A survey by this newspaper showed that half the people (47.58 percent) thought that DeMo was a bad idea. As many as 60 percent said it failed to reduce black money; 66.52 percent said it did not eliminate corruption.

When Manmohan Singh said in Parliament that notebandi was "legalised blunder", he didn't cut much ice because he was a Congressman and his records as a Congress Prime Minister was pathetic. But he got more mileage when he spoke as an economist in Ahmedabad last week and asked: "By questioning bullet trains does one become anti-national"?

We have forgotten those who died amid the chaos of notebandi. Manmohan Singh said "more than 100" had died. Wire services listed names and locations of 90, including a bank peon in Pune who succumbed to stress handling large crowds 12 hours a day, and many elderly people who simply collapsed waiting in queues.

Government partisans said the deaths had nothing do with the currency reform. Finance Minister Jaitley dismissed "initial inconveniences" and said the absence of social unrest and "any significant economic disruption" showed that DeMo was a great achievement.

There was no social unrest even when the Emergency denied citizens the right to life. But people kicked out Indira Gandhi. On disruption, the Honourable Minister could not have been more wrong. Take just one example: Surat and Tirupur, crown jewels of India's textile exports, were devastated overnight. It was a 400-crore-a-day business in Surat, a 50,000-crore-a-year backbone in Tirupur employing ten lakh workers. Surat was cut down by half. Tirupur, dependent wholly on textiles (unlike Surat which had diamonds, too), was reduced to a graveyard. Are these, too, "initial conveniences?"

The obstinacy with which the Government continues to justify every detail of its decision adds further dimensions to the damage already done. As Kaushik Basu pointed out: "A bigger worry than the demonetisation itself is the failure to recognise that it was a mistake. That is what is getting investors and businessmen worried about future policy decisions".

The biggest conundrum is that, to this day, nobody knows what it was all about. To cut off black money? To starve terrorists of funds? To promote digital economy? The Honourable Finance Minister swears that all these policy objectives have been achieved. It must be one of the great pleasures of life to sit in an ivory tower and believe that you are the wisest that Brahma ever created.

But Brahma himself will have trouble figuring out the sarkari logic regarding high-value currency. We were told that 1000- and 500- rupee notes were made illegal because they made it easier for bad people to store unaccounted money. Then why were 2000-rupee notes introduced, making it easier still for bad people? Within days of the pink note's appearance, Indian genius produced stacks of fake 2000-rupee notes. Stacks of banned old currency are still being transported around by traders who ain't fools. What's going on?

What's going on is a huge big mess. Notebandi created a confusion that other brainwaves compounded, making life miserable for everyone. GST was supposed to simplify the tax system. What it has done is: You pay tax when you earn money, and you pay tax when you spend your money. Worse, you pay more for your sambar-vada and your vitamin pill. There is a GSTN, a network to make tax-paying easy. But when you pay something, the receipt says something else. Errors are justified as server delays and/or session timeouts.

Then there is Aadhar, a simple idea turned into a torture chamber. One day you are told to link Aadhar with your marriage certificate. The next day you are told to wait until the courts decide whether your marriage is fake or love-jihad. You then have to link your Aadhar to your pancard, the page number of the book you are reading, the number of vada-pavs you can eat in one go and finally your dhobi account. Never forget it is a privilege to be a citizen linked to links.